For me, food has always represented home, and always will. My whole life, my mom showed her love and care for her family by feeding us home-cooked meals. She has always loved cooking, and she built my roots through food that often reflected the unique fusion of cultures that existed in our home.
Some days we had traditional Indian food: sour russum my dad grew up eating in Chennai, or spicy coconut chicken curry from her family in Mangalore. But other days we ate Portuguese dishes reflective of my mom’s mixed heritage, and sometimes I would come home to a Thai curry or chorizo pasta that my mom cooked in her curiosity to explore all types of food. While my mom was never limited to one type of food, the flavors she imbued were always characteristically her, and through meals she conveyed to us her fire, passion and subtlety — traits I would grow up trying to emulate.
Due to the number of different cultures that had fused to make my family, I often struggled to understand my place in the Indian community here in America. The foods popular in Indian restaurants were as foreign to me as that of any other culture, and the same could be said about many other aspects of Indian culture I was exposed to. When friends would joke about how white-washed I was, I would laugh along because I didn’t know how to convey what I really felt. It wasn’t that I didn’t have my culture — I was rich in both traditions and family — but it was more like my culture seemed to be unique to me.
But then we took this trip to India.
It had been seven years since we last visited, and initially I was apprehensive, unsure of how strong of a connection I had with my home country. But once I got there, I knew something was different about this trip.
The first day in Chennai, my grandma made dosas, a standard South Indian breakfast dish. I watched her make them, gently using her ladle to spread and swirl the rice dough into a perfect circle on the hot pan. She drizzled some ghee — Indian butter — over the top, and within 30 seconds it had crisped to perfection. When I bit into the paper-thin concoction, felt both the crunch and richness on my tongue, I suddenly felt like I had found home. I assumed that I would feel like a foreigner in India, but in this moment I couldn’t think of a time when I had felt more like myself.
From that day on, that feeling would be the motif of the rest of my trip. I found my place in India through the soft idlis and sweet rasgulla, in homemade buttermilk and spicy gobi manchurian. I began to realize that despite being 8000 miles away from home, in a city where I didn’t speak the language or follow the traditions or even worship the same god, my food made me feel like part of a greater community of people. My assumption that I was somehow alone in my culture was challenged often, but it was finally eradicated at a small roadside hotel on the outskirts of Bangalore.
We had pulled over in the middle of a six-hour drive, hoping to eat a quick cheap breakfast before heading out on the road again. As I did in most Indian restaurants, I quickly pawned off the responsibility of ordering to my parents, since I usually didn’t know the names of the foods nor which particular dishes I actually wanted. My mom suggested puliyogare, and I shrugged noncommittally, unsure of what it was or what it tasted like. Soon a simple bowl of tamarind rice with peanuts was sitting in front of me, and I quickly took a bite.
Immediately, I looked at my mother in shock. I had had this dish before. Not only had I had this dish before, it was one of my favorite dishes that my mom made. Given that I had never had it outside of home, I had just assumed it was one of those classic fusion dishes that were unique to my mom and my mom only. In my head, this dish had been a prime example of how unique my culture was, and yet here it was, common as can be in South India.
Food has always been an essential component of my culture. And just like it seemed to separate me from others at certain points in my life, I realize now just how much it unites me with my heritage. My mother’s “unique” flavors are by-products of a rich and colorful heritage that I am lucky enough to have. Each meal I eat is an acknowledgement of the diverse communities that are represented in my family, and I’m grateful to have access to so many. All I have to do is eat.